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Know how to strike a trade deal? Brexit Britain wants you fast

The UK's vote to leave the European Union has hit the pound, squelched company mergers and cast a pall over corporate profits. For one niche profession - trade negotiators - it has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

[LONDON] The UK's vote to leave the European Union has hit the pound, squelched company mergers and cast a pall over corporate profits. For one niche profession - trade negotiators - it has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Lawyers, consultants and even retired civil servants with relevant experience will be in higher demand than ever as a government led by Theresa May builds a team to hammer out new economic relationships. The need is acute because the UK hasn't struck a trade deal on its own since the early 1970s, when it joined the precursor to the EU.

"This is undoubtedly going to be a vast endeavor," said Gregor Irwin, chief economist at London consultancy Global Counsel and a former UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office official. "There is almost no capacity at the moment, and virtually no one in government with serious negotiation experience."

Even before Prime Minister David Cameron stepped down to make way for Ms May - a transition set for Wednesday - his government began a hunt for new blood to expand an in-house trade team that numbers a few dozen at most.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid last week said the country will "rapidly build its expertise on trade," with a goal of putting up to 300 specialised employees in place by the end of the year.


Companies have embarked on a similar headhunt as they lobby the UK government and Brussels over the terms of Brexit and adapt their businesses to the country's new trade relationships.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc has hired former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso as an adviser.

Though the Brexit referendum campaign centered on anxiety about immigration, Mr Cameron suggested recruiting trade negotiators globally, opening the possibility that citizens of other countries could represent the UK at the trade bargaining table. New Zealand has offered to send civil servants to assist.

The necessary knowledge won't come cheap wherever it's found. Many top lawyers may be reluctant to depart lucrative private practice for full-time government work, said John Purcell of Purcell & Company, a London executive recruitment firm.

Hiring them as consultants instead could run the government 1,000 pounds (S$1,800) to 5,000 pounds a day per person, depending on experience and the scarcity of their skills, Mr Purcell said.

Extricating the UK from the EU after more than four decades could take years, creating lengthy to-do lists. Most urgent is hammering out a new deal with the world's largest economy, the destination of almost half of UK exports, which are currently sold without tariffs.

Then comes the task of replicating the EU's dozens of trade agreements with other countries, as well as the challenge of opening talks with the likes of China and the US. The EU negotiates such deals on behalf of its 28 member states.

Recruitment for trade roles may face a significant handicap: relatively few high-level professionals supported leaving the EU, which will require an overhaul that some will now be called upon to help execute.


Even if finding the relevant skills proves straightforward, "how do you make people work as a unit, with a common purpose?" said Jamie Page, a partner in London at recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles. "I suspect there's going to be varying degrees of willingness to embrace what's going to happen."

Even modest trade deals rank among the most complex legal exercises around. The EU's pact with Canada, which was held up as a model by some pro-Brexit campaigners, runs to almost 1,600 pages and took seven years to negotiate. It awaits ratification by up to 38 national and regional legislatures.

The UK's goals for a deal with the EU would probably be more ambitious - for example, by including unrestricted trade in services like finance, which the Canadian deal doesn't provide.

Retaining access to the single European market mostly on current terms would probably mean accepting the continued free movement of people, a bedrock EU principle. May has indicated that she wants to restrict the movement of labour.

If a full new deal is required instead, "it'll be extensive, painful, lengthy and difficult," said Hal Shapiro, a former White House economic adviser and a partner at law firm Akin Gump.

"There's usually no simple on-off switch and you'll have to go through almost every category item by item," from cheese to car parts to professional services.


To find the brainpower to underpin such a sprawling exercise, and then repeat it over and over, the UK should scour the civil service and diplomatic ranks for anyone with experience of working at venues like the World Trade Organisation, said Wendy Cutler, a nearly three-decade veteran of the Office of the US Trade Representative who's now vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington.

The government could also bring back retired officials to consult as it embarks on the more challenging task of training a new generation of negotiators, she said.

Even if the UK succeeds in quickly assembling a competent group to begin talks with the EU, the two sides are unlikely to be evenly matched. The 700 employees of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Trade are among the world's most experienced negotiators.

Since the 1970s, Brussels has struck deals with more than 50 countries. British representatives can expect their counterparts to fight their corner hard.  "I can tell you from my time at the USTR," Ms Cutler said, "Commission negotiators are often the most skilled and the most daunting at the table."